Q-Review: Keeping everything tight with OmniFocus for the iPhone / iPod Touch

of.jpg I’m a productivity enthusiast, and I’m a practitioner (and evangelist) of the Getting Things Done method of getting things done. This way of living has made it possible for me to do more every day and with less stress. It’s changed my life for the better. And now, with the recent purchase of OmniFocus for the iPhone/iPod Touch, my life has changed again.

First, some backstory

One of the most important aspects of the GTD methodology is the set of tools you use. The inbox, the labeling and filing system, the task list, the idea capture device. I currently use a simple wire desk paper tray for an inbox, a big ol’, heavy ol’, circa 1970’s filing cabinet to hold my manilla folders, and I use OmniFocus for my task list manager.

You can accomplish a lot with a little using these tools. But you need to use them. This is where I have been running into trouble as of late. My inbox, filing cabinet, and most importantly, my Mac Pro have all resided in my office. And for the last few months here at the Q-Burger, I’ve been sharing office space with the current VP of Frequent Naps and Early Bedtimes. Which has meant that I don’t have the freedom to access my tools as frequently as I’ve needed to in order to continue to be as productive as I’d like. And as a result, there’ve been more dropped balls, forgotten stuff, and missed dates than in the past. Sucks, but, I rationalized, that’s part of parenthood.

Couple things have recently changed. One is the recent move to the basement, which should be finalized by the time you read this. The other is the acquisition of OmniFocus for the iPhone and iPod Touch.

A heavy-duty “lite” version of OmniFocus

You could call OmniFocus for the iPhone and iPod Touch a “lite” version of the desktop application, but you’d be mostly wrong. The iPhone version has nearly all the common features that one uses when at the helm of the desktop version.

The creation of new projects, project folders, contexts and actions is fast and easy. You can view your actions by project or context. Setting start and due dates is easy. You can check off completed items and projects. All the most common ways you expect to use a top-shelf task manager app are there.

But there are a few limitations that you’ll run into. Perspectives (OF’s name for custom views of your data) aren’t available. And some of the finer points of project and action set-up aren’t there, e.g., making a recurring action. So if you rely heavily on these bells and whistles, you might miss them while on the go.

Omni has successfully ported their fairly complex user-interface to the iPhone. Using this app is a natural feeling act, although navigating in and out of a series of nested projects or contexts can get a little tedious with all the tapping, but the app is responsive and quick. Viewing and reviewing your data is nearly painless.

Desktop syncing

One of the basic tenets of GTD is to have just one list that contains all of your projects and tasks. So, arguably, the most important feature of OF for iPhone is the ability to quickly and reliably sync the device with the database used by the desktop app, thereby eliminating the confusion of having 2 lists going in 2 different places.

OF offers several options for syncing iPhone/iPod Touch: Wi-fi, iDisk, or a webDAV server. Syncing is really really hard to do (it’s apparently very easy to do…poorly, if the scores of file synchro apps I’ve been burned by is any indication). And so I was ready for a bumpy experience when I first configured my Touch to pull the OF database from my Mac Pro. And there was a slight bump in the beginning.

When performing the first sync, a relatively large amount of data is being transferred, and there’s not really an indication that anything is happening during this first transfer. And this confused me a little. So I started and restarted the sync a couple of times before I just decided to let it go and see what happened. Once I did that, it took but a minute or 2 before I was up and running with a mobile, synchronized version of my task list. And I’ve synced dozens of times since then and had no problems at all.

It all happens at the touch of one button, and (over wi-fi, at least) it’s really, really fast.

Makes iPhone/iPod Touch the one true ubiquitous capture device

Another fundamental requirement of any well-implemented GTD methodology is the ability to capture ideas as they occur to you, wherever you are. This is easy to do when at a computer, thanks to OF’s Quick Entry feature. Tap a hotkey, the Quick Entry window pops up, you enter the new action, and the window goes away. But this convenience is harder to come by when you’re in the real world.

The best option, in my mind, had been to always carry a cheap little notepad and a small, but durable, pen. And for awhile, I did this. But I already had chronically overfilled pockets, what with keys, cell phone, hand-sanitizer, iPod, coughdrops, etc., etc. Adding a crumple-able notepad and a potentially leaky pen (or breakable pencil) was just too much. Plus, there was the added work of processing the ideas in the notepad and entering them manually into OF on the desktop.

Now, with the addition of OF to my iPod Touch, I no longer need that pen and paper, and I no longer have to transcribe from notepad to computer. This time-saving, super-convenient combination of iPod and OF has had a huge impact on my day-to-day life. Here’s how:

Part of my bedtime ritual is to listen to an audiobook before going to sleep, and then tuck the iPod into my pillowcase. One night, having just settled in and shutting off the light, I remembered that I needed to call and update Pearle Vision with my cell phone number. Instead of either getting up and running to get my notepad, or worse, trusting myself to remember this later, I was able to pull up OF, tap in the action, sync it to my desktop, and resume listening to “The Black Cauldron” without having to get out of my cozy, cozy bed. Awesome.

It is aware

The biggest “cool” feature is the location-aware contexts. Geared primarily toward the GPS-toting iPhone, but also useable with wi-fi triangulation with the iPod Touch, this feature allows you to link a context with a physical location.

Here’s a quick rundown of how it works:

I just set up an Errands: Target context. In the options, you can associate the context with a location. The location is found via a Google Maps search (Google Maps is tightly integrated with the iPhone OS). In this case, I connected it with a Google Maps “Business Search” for “Target”. Then, when I tap the Nearby button, it opens a page that displays all available actions, the distance to the place where you need to do them, and a button that when tapped will show you a Google map with directions from here to there. In this case, I see “Errands: Target: Go grocery shopping. 2 Miles.”

Since I’m tethered to a wi-fi spot, I don’t really feel the true power that an iPhone user might, when I’m out in the wild and looking for an increasingly rare Starbucks or something.

There are drawbacks

The application isn’t without its flaws. The lack of the finer grained settings for projects and actions is a little disappointing, but tolerable. And the lack of user feedback during the first sync up was annoying, but ultimately worked out fine. But as far as functionality and use of the app goes